The campaign I lovingly refer to as The Apocalypse Campaign was a campaign I ran in the early 2000s in Sydney, Australia with a combined group of inexperienced friends and experienced players. It started off, I recall, using a tarot-card based system whose name I forget and which was, unsurprisingly, terrible. I then moved rapidly to a non-tarot system of my own devising that was intended to be very simple and was, correspondingly, probably quite useless. This system was characterized by now character classes and skill-based magic (i.e. no spells – players just say what they want to do and I set a difficulty).

I think of this campaign as a kind of story seed with sandbox, in that I placed a few key story elements in the first adventure with no clear plan as to how they would unfold, an initial plan for one or two unrelated adventures, and a plan to build a strong story based on whatever happened next. The story seeds were quite powerful and gave me a backdrop within which I could easily control the PCs actions whenever I felt the campaign needed a kick, but the setting was quite powerful and the PCs good at exploring and controlling it themselves.

The Setting: Post-apocalyptic fantastic Europe

The setting was Europe after some kind of combined arcane cataclysm and apocalypse, in which the seas had risen (possibly due to global warming, though it wasn’t clear), advanced civilisations had collapsed and magic and monsters had entered the world. The cause of the collapse was unknown, with all knowledge of that time mysteriously lost, and the events were generally blamed on “science” so the world had retreated into a kind of neo-luddite mediaeval system, ruled by feudal kings under the wise guidance of the Catholic Church. This is the campaign for which I carefully constructed maps of a flooded Europe using just paint and a photocopier. I don’t think I have those maps anymore but the rich detail they provided was very useful for keeping my players engaged in what turned out to be a complex and interesting post-apocalyptic scenario.

In fact, the true history of the apocalypse was that the Catholic church, seeing their grip on the world slipping away with the increasing influx of technology and scientific knowledge, unleashed the catastrophe of the apocalypse deliberately into the world, breaking barriers between the material plane and some other planes to allow demons, monsters and magic in. The ritual they invoked led to the destruction of the modern order but preserved their own temporal power, enabling them to assert themselves in the aftermath as both the ruling powers and the first custodians of magic. In the new era, they hunted down those who were not officially licensed to use magic, destroyed heretics, and carefully shepherded all knowledge of “before” to hide their complicity in the world’s downfall. They held all of Europe in subjection under an undying pope, whose soul was reincarnated in a new boy child every 90 or so years. They also sought out and destroyed pre-collapse technology, and controlled a pan-European army of religious inquisitors (the Falcons) whose job was making sure everything went smoothly. All more advanced magical items that would replace the role of technology in the new era were also controlled by the church or its secular representatives. The model society was similar to that in the flooded post-apocalyptic Europe of the White Bird of Kinship novels, with demons.

The Plot Hooks

The basic plot hook for the adventure was simple: the characters were in a pub waiting for a ship from a fragment of England to Brittany, when Falcon soldiers descended on the pub and attempted to destroy it and abduct a child. The PCs rescue the child and the old man protecting it, and flee, but are chased and in a brief battle kill the soldiers but lose the old man. His last dying words are a request for them to save the child, which they agree to do, and they begin hiking overland to a different port to take ship to Brittany. The child, of course, is the next pope, and their act of charity has put them in direct conflict with the church. They then go to Brittany, meeting a Hungarian Fire Lancer along the way (and stealing his gene-coded fire lance), then in flight from the Church they travel to somewhere in Germany. On the way they are stranded on a haunted Ocean Thermal Energy Collection platform, where the haunting ghost shies away from them in terror at the mere sight of their baby. Much of the rest of the adventure involved them slowly discovering that yes, the child harboured an intensely evil being and yes, the being was the next Pope. From there they began to discover details of the history of the collapse, the Church’s power and how evil the Church really was.

Settings and Adventures

I managed to put some pretty memorable settings and scenarios into this campaign, some of them based on rediscovered tech and some of them based on the new magical world and its links to hell. Some examples:

  • The Ocean Thermal Energy Collector, which the characters wash up onto during a storm. While seeking shelter they stumble on the undead guards of its last occupants, killing them, but they are unable to defeat the chief ghost in the OTEC tower; however, they are able to steal his treasure because he shies away in terror from the infinite evil of the baby they are looking after. This gave them the first hint that they needed to investigate the baby magically for clues as to why the church was chasing it
  • Hungarian Fire Lancers, which I made up on the spot but proved very useful. A Hungarian fire lance is a pre-collapse plasma cannon of awesome power, gene-coded to a particular family so essentially an heir loom. The lance’s owners are allowed to keep these artifacts in exchange for service to the church, and they are legendarily powerful. The PCs, meeting a lancer early on in the campaign, were way too crafty for me, and turned an NPC meeting I had intended as a bit of flavour into a chance to empower themselves mightily. One of the PCs was a technomage, and the PCs thought that he might be able to hack a genecode. So while the fire lancer was distracted during a battle with some pirates, this PC slipped down below and recoded the fire lance to his/her own DNA. The fire lancer died when he next touch his own lance, and the PCs stole it.
  • The Time Bomb: Passing through an area of Southern Germany in their skyship, the PCs stumbled on a region deep in the mountains where birds hung in the air, slowly collecting moss; and on the ground below were the scenes of a battle between tanks and soldiers, all frozen in the midst of their actions. So dirt was frozen in the middle of an explosion, soldiers caught in mid-air halfway through a leap, a tank in the middle of being destroyed. The PCs investigated and found they couldn’t move anything or interfere with anything except a single bomb. The technomage disarmed this bomb, and suddenly all the previously-frozen soldiers and animals collapsed, dead, to the ground; the tank completed exploding and the dirt flew to its natural trajectory. The PCs had discovered a bomb that freezes time in a small area, causing all living things in the area to die instantly, and freezing everything in the state it was in when set off. Very useful for, say, killing a very powerful pope… but with only one use. They took it, and a grav tank.
  • Conversations with Orc Lords: The PCs did a bit of trading and passenger-carrying with their skyship, and in one memorable journey carried an Orc lord who turned out to be a very civilized and sophisticated chap, with a taste in fine wines and art. He hailed from a kingdom in Southern France that was entirely Orcish, and described their society of ritual duels, slave-owning, and continual internecine conflict. I re-envisaged Orcs as sophisticated, intelligent and yet still brutal and cruel, denied access to any form of trade with their neighbours and so only able to obtain magic items and technology by conquest. The PCs, of course, formed an alliance and immediately traded tech with this chap, and the Orcs – in all their brutality and sophistication – became a prominent feature of this campaign.
  • The Dragon Battle: I do dragon battles very rarely in my campaigns, preferring to keep dragons for near the end, when things are really out of control, and usually making them so awesome and inspiring that they only ever need be met once. So once the PCs had set up a kingdom for themselves in the pyrenees, discovered the truth about the Catholic church and were starting to coordinate resistance to and war against the pope, the pope sent a dragon to destroy them. This dragon, longer than London bridge and louder than a steam train, descended on their tower in a storm of its own making and killed one of the PCs instantly in a surprise attack. It then set about destroying their skyship, wasting their castle and slaughtering their followers in quick order, and they had to use all their wits to defeat it. It was only finally defeated by the technomage, who very quick-wittedly grabbed a grav bike and flew to a neighbouring cliff face, from where he took sniper shots at the dragon using the Hungarian fire lance, while the dragon tore the top off of their skyship, trying to kill their fighter. They lost two of their party to the dragon, half of their followers, one of their grav bikes, the skyship and a chunk of their tower, and even when it was dead and had fallen to its doom in a valley it was still dangerous – two PCs went to look at the corpse and with its dying gaze it mesmerized one, trying to get him to attack the other one. This dragon was a really stunning and powerful encounter for everyone involved, and really impressed on me the joys of high-level adventuring (which I do rarely).
  • The Shrike Tree: The PCs discovered that the Pope and the church had taken control of the earth and controlled access to a lot of magical power, as well as holding open the gates between the planes, through a deal with hell. Particularly, an innocent figure was being eternally crucified in hell, and while this figure was there there was no way of stopping the pope from reincarnating. So the PCs entered hell and found the figure, which I think was Judas (my memory doesn’t serve me well now). Judas was pinned to a tree of thorns that grew in the centre of hell. The rest of the tree was covered in thorns too, and on every one a fairy was impaled (or some other good creature). In order to stop the reincarnation, the PCs had to kill Judas and then impale their own baby on the Shrike Tree. I got this idea from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, which I’d been reading at the time. The PCs’ journey through hell to here, and the subsequent mercy-killing of Judas and infanticide, were the first time I had ever set an adventure in another plane.
  • The River Styx and the Starbound Sea: After killing Judas, the entirety of hell turned on the PCs and they fled. They crossed the river styx and reached the gates of hell as they were closing, but a final, huge monster (the gatekeeper) attacked them and they had to flee, back into hell. Finally they somehow all got hurled into the river styx, where they were washed away downstream, until they all woke up, without their memories, on a beach of dark sand under a perfectly black sky. The beach was being gently lapped by waves from a sea that seemed to be teeming with stars. They knew nothing, but walking along the beach towards them was a character from a distant monastery – a monastery on another plane that the characters had previously visited to get information about the Shrike Tree. And it was here that the campaign ended, with the PCs having been successful, and lost everything.

Conclusion: Story-seeded sandboxes are fun

These settings were a lot of fun to think up and throw at the PCs, and really none of them (except the OTEC) were planned before the adventure started. We explored post-apocalyptic Europe together, and I made it up as I went. The only story goal I had when the campaign started was that the PCs would uncover the truth about the apocalypse, and maybe kill the pope. In the end they did much more than that, destroying the power of the church and establishing their own kingdom in the temporal world (which they then lost). But the details of all of that kind of drew together as we went, with me crafting the next stages of the plot from what the PCs had already done and found. It was a roller-coaster of a ride in a really dense, richly detailed science-fantasy world. If you have a strong setting, a vision of a final goal, interested players with interesting PCs, and a story seed that is both mysterious and compelling (and offers a lot of plot-intervention moments) you can create a truly exciting, long-lived and powerful campaign that is both sandbox and story. Well worth the effort!